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A Judgment Call

The college football instant-replay system is high tech but not exact, leading to stressful situations in the booth and on the field

December 26, 2006|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

Somewhere along the line, Gordon Riese figures, college football fans got the wrong idea about instant replay.

An official surrounded by video screens, analyzing close calls from various angles, running the action backward and forward in slow motion -- it sounds high tech and nearly foolproof.

It doesn't always work that way.

Sometimes the official doesn't have the camera angle he needs or adequate time to view all the shots between plays. Sometimes he spots a mistake that he can't reverse because of strict rules. And in a system only a few years old, the men in the booth occasionally struggle with a task very different from the work they used to do as field officials.

"You're learning on the job," Riese said. "Maybe what you don't know is going to jump up and bite you."

That's what happened to him during the Oklahoma-Oregon game in September. As a Pacific 10 Conference replay official, he presided over a botched call on an on-side kick that cost Oklahoma an apparent victory.

The resulting uproar sent Riese -- a respected field official -- into abrupt retirement and made him a national lightning rod for complaints about instant replay.

"It impacted how everyone viewed the season," said Kevin Weiberg, commissioner of the Big 12 Conference, which includes Oklahoma. "I think it created an impression throughout the year that there was a problem."

Statistics show instant replay suffered relatively few miscues amid thousands of plays this fall. But conference executives know the system is controversial and fans will be watching for more glitches as the holiday bowl season heats up.

"They'll take one play and taint the whole system with a broad brush," said Dave Parry, the NCAA's national coordinator of football officials. "That's oversimplifying the matter."

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Eleven major conferences -- from the Big East to the Pac-10 -- played 738 games this fall, three-quarters of which were paused for at least one review.

Of the 1,063 calls scrutinized, a quarter were reversed, according to statistics compiled by Jeff Hurd, a senior associate commissioner with the Western Athletic Conference.

Though some reviews might have seemed agonizingly long, officials say the average wait was 1 minute 49 seconds. The Pac-10 averaged 2:02, skewed in part by a convoluted double-review in the Oregon-USC game that stretched about 15 minutes.

These numbers sound reasonable enough, but they do not begin to address the passions aroused by instant replay. As USC quarterback John David Booty said: "When it helps your team, you like it. When it hurts your team, you don't."

Conference executives suspect the biggest misconception about instant replay is its supposed infallibility, the notion that technology should get every call right. They compare the system to an appellate court, another layer of officiating that can suffer its own brand of foibles.

"Some people assume you get a video image and that's all you need," said Nick Carparelli Jr., a Big East associate commissioner. "The reality is, there's a lot of decision-making and interpretation by the replay official."

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When most major conferences adopted instant replay two years ago -- two waited until this season -- they hired veteran officials to work the booths. Each replay official was assigned two assistants to help with details and operate video equipment.

The crews attended seminars where they were taught a new skill set. Before, as field officials, they kept a narrow focus, watching only the offensive backfield or defensive secondary, for example. Now they learned to follow the ball because that is where most questionable calls arise.

Catch, no catch. Fumble, no fumble.

They also discovered that stressful decisions are not limited to those few instances when the game is stopped for review.

The booth official must analyze every play, asking two questions. Was there a potential mistake? If so, did the impact of the play warrant hitting the buzzer, alerting the referee to stop the game?

The decision is easy on a two-yard run off tackle, but a surprising number of plays require scrutiny. And the official must decide in 40 seconds or less, because once the next play begins there is no turning back.

Even in a televised game with numerous cameras, "You're kind of at the mercy of what the television producer is going to show you," Riese said. "The maximum you can see is three [angles]. If they're in the no-huddle, you're going to see it once."

If the play is stopped for review -- or a coach uses his one challenge -- the pressure only increases.

The clock is ticking, teams and fans waiting for a decision. Viewers at home might be watching the same replays, forming their own opinions. They might also see an obvious mistake that the booth official -- like an appellate judge confined to certain issues of law -- is not allowed to address.

"That's another misconception on the part of many fans," Weiberg said.

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